Corruption in City-Builders, or Why I’m Never a Dictator in Tropico

Tropico 6 is coming out later this year, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the series.  It’s one of my favorites, in which you play as a Caribbean dictator, ruling your island as you see fit.  My biggest disappointment with the series, though, is that you can’t be a very dictatorial dictator.

There are plenty of real-life examples of eccentric dictators, more than enough to fill a game with.  But the Tropico series doesn’t allow you to explore these options.  You can’t ban religion and turn your cathedrals into sports stadiums.  You can’t have your own personal harem.  You can’t sell your islanders’ plasma to the Yankees for money.  You can’t even imprison hordes of random Tropicans without provoking a rebellion.  And when a series touts itself as a “dictator sim,” that’s a problem.

But even aside from quirkier acts like making your horse a general, I think the big issue with being a dictator in Tropico is that it isn’t fun.  Tropico’s a city-builder.  Your big resources are people to work jobs and money to build things, and people’s various goals and drives are essentially averaged out to happiness.  If you’ve got happy people and money, you’re all set.  And if you don’t, it’s hard to have fun.

Tropico gives you a Swiss bank account, with the intent being that you fill up the bank account to enrich yourself at the expense of the island.  But unless a mission makes you, there’s little reason to do so.  Your Swiss bank account in Tropico 5, the latest game, lets you level up members of your dynasty, increasing the boosts they can give to buildings or the island as a whole if they’re president, but one they’re all leveled up, there’s no reason to embezzle more money.  You can’t spend your Swiss bank account money on anything special or unique, and you can’t transfer the funds to the treasury, so you’re better off just leaving the money with the treasury and building new factories with it than taking it for yourself.

While you might want to perform certain evil actions just for the sake of it, you’re always going to be limited by rebels.  Rebels aren’t fun to deal with.  If you lose a fight, you’ve lost an expensive building or even the game.  But even if you win, you didn’t contribute at all.  Your soldiers attacked the rebels on their own and you just had enough soldiers to win.  There’s no strategy involved.  Just plop down guard towers and barracks and you’re good to go.  So the two results of being a dictator, embezzled money and lots of rebels, make the game less fun to play, and there’s so little difficulty in playing benevolently that the only reason not to is to be evil for the sake of being evil.

The citizens’ happiness is important, and it certainly should be, but why not implement a fear system?  It’s surprising that they’re as willing to rebel against an impoverished good guy doing his best but doesn’t have the money for churches and entertainment as they are against a dictator with an army at his back who’s spent the last ten years killing his enemies.  Are Tropicans never cowed by violence?  If brutality could reduce the odds of rebels, there’d be a reason for it.  Is there no Stasi HQ I can build to give me warnings about who’s likely to rebel, giving me a chance to arrest and re-educate them first?

What I’d like to see is a gameplay reason to be corrupt.  Give me something unique that can only be bought with Swiss bank account money.  Special buildings or edicts or actions that only work with Swiss bank account money.  Rebels I think the game is stuck with, but it would be nice to include more game mechanics around them so that they’re less of an annoyance and more something engaging to deal with.  As it is, all of the rebels work together.  Perhaps there could be a mechanic where there are different factions within the rebels, and by giving into certain demands, you could satisfy one faction enough that their rebels would return to civilian life.

Basically, I want playing as a dictator to be as fun as playing as a benevolent servant of the state is, even if it’s through different mechanisms.  If battles were more enjoyable, if illegally laundered money had unique uses, heck, even something as shallow as establishing a harem unlocking pin-up-style artwork, the game would incentivize corruption.  But as it is, the most fun thing to do in the game, build up your island and watch it grow, is only accomplished by a full treasury and a happy populace.  Which makes sense for any other city-builder, but a dictator sim should let me play dictatorially.

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